Periscope Depth

peepshow, creepshow, where did you get those eyes?

Both the professionals I spoke to at Muse and the Marketplace – an agent and an editor – recommended that I read more thrillers to improve my pacing and suspense. So I Kindled James Patterson’s Jack and Jill and read it this past week.

James Patterson: not that great.

Let me give you some examples from the first few pages. Our hero, Dr. Alex Cross, is woken in the middle of the night by a pounding on his front door.

“Shit. Damnit,” I whispered into the soft, deep folds of my pillow. “Leave me alone. Let me sleep through the night like a normal person. Go away from here.”

[...]

“Oh Jesus, John. You know what time it is? You have any concept of time? Please get the hell away from my house. Go home to your own house. Bang on your own door in the middle of the night.”

[...]

My heart was hammering and felt as if it were suddenly too big for my chest. My wife, Maria, had been shot down and killed not far from this place. Memories of the neighborhood, memories of a lifetime. I’ll always love you, Maria.

[...]

We make quite the pair when we arrive at a crime scene: [John] Sampson with his huge shaved skull and black leather car coat; me usually in a gray warm-up jacket from Georgetown. Shoulder holster under the coat. Dressed for the game that I play, a game called sudden death.

Those excerpts all come from the first eight pages, by which I mean the first three chapters. Did you know there’s no rule that says a chapter can’t be two pages long? I looked. I didn’t need to, because Patterson’s clearly looked for me, but now I know.

Characters spend huge swaths of time in their own head, flashing back to details or lines of dialogue they just heard. In italics.
Ominous italics.
Ominous italics that get their own paragraph.

When they’re not thinking about what they’ve just seen or talking to each other in ways that no human being would speak to another, Patterson’s characters make their living by failing to solve mysteries. Dr. Cross supposedly has this unique gift for getting inside a killer’s head – making him so useful to Metro police that they made him a police detective, leading to the occasionally awkward, “Hey, Doctor-Detective Cross! Over here!” – but I never saw him do anything that you, or I, or the guy driving the bus couldn’t do.

SPOILERS: The eponymous Jack & Jill are a pair of serial killers targeting Washington, D.C. celebrities. They kill, or arrange for the death of, a fictional Ted Kennedy equivalent, a prominent news anchorwoman, and a Supreme Court Justice’s girlfriend. Dr. Cross dutifully goes to the scene of each killing, tries to get inside the killers’ heads, and stares moodily.

At the same time, a serial killer is targeting children at the school his son attends. Three children die at this maniac’s hands – two students and one other kid as a red herring. Dr. Cross shows up at each of these crime scenes and thinks really hard about some stuff.

Then, Jack and Jill kill the President. Dr. Cross finds a bit of evidence (which anyone could have found) that identifies Jack. He and the Secret Service surround his house and arrest him. This is after the child murderer takes the principal at the nearby school hostage, a hostage crisis which Dr. Cross escalates into gunplay and then ends through force.

So, really, Cross just lets the plot drag him along by the collar until it’s time for him to punch people, and punch them he does.END SPOILERS.

All that being said, James Patterson is clearly a better writer than I am. Why?

1. He’s sold a lot of novels; I’ve sold zero. Big sales volume, as I’ve said before, is not the only element that separates the mediocre from the good. But it means he’s found a market and an audience, while I have not. A writer needs an audience. Therefore he’s a better writer than I am.

2. He’s better than me at what I need to get better at doing. Devil take the clumsy oaf and his stable of ghostwriters, he has the art of pacing down. Not a chapter goes by that doesn’t end on either a new plot element or a cliffhanger. Everything moves. I almost understand why he pads his pages out with so much internal monologue and ominous repetition – if he didn’t, this book would be 100 pages.

Whereas yours truly? I write these meandering, ornate paragraphs full of characterization and description. I spend pages setting up characters for later suspense. Screw the later suspense. Throw them in the pot now.

So I’ve learned something at the feet of an (ahem) master. That’s what writers do.

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